National Black Catholic History Month Celebrated

On July 24, 1990 the National Back Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States designated November as Black Catholic History Month to celebrate the long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics. It also marks a time to share in remembrance, the saints and souls of Africa and the African Diaspora.

Black Catholics trace their faith history back to Christian antiquity long before other nations heard the “Good News.” Christian Africa was a “leading light” in early Christendom. Black Catholics point to three popes who were born in Africa: Saints Victor I, Melchiades, and Gelasius I.

In observance of National Black Catholic History Month, Brother David Caretti and the office of Mission and Ministry share a reflection on the life of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a powerhouse in the American Catholic Church in recent decades.

The granddaughter of slaves, Sister Thea (Bertha) was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, on December 29, 1937. Soon thereafter, the family moved to Canton, MS. When she was nine years of age, she began a spiritual quest that led to her being baptized Catholic and receiving her first communion.

Sister Thea’s parents enrolled her at Holy Child Jesus School staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. The life and work of the sisters so impressed her that at the age of 15, she joined them by entering Saint Rose Convent in LaCrosse Wisconsin. There, she was given her religious name, Thea.

After progressing successfully through her years of formation as a religious sister and in academia, Sister Thea received a doctorate in English literature and linguistics from the Catholic University of America. Her doctoral dissertation was on Saint Thomas More, the English martyr. Having already taught in both elementary and high schools with her Franciscan Sisters, she eventually taught at Viterbo College, the Catholic University of America, and Xavier University of New Orleans, the first and only Catholic Historically Black College. As her mission unfolded, she celebrated and encouraged Black Americans to proudly celebrate their own identity.

Sister Thea became a poet, preacher, master teacher, vocalist, and evangelist. She eventually returned to Canton and served as Director of Intercultural Awareness for the Diocese of Jackson. She was particularly successful with children and continued working and teaching in the Diocese even after being seriously impaired by cancer. After regaining a modicum of strength, she traveled throughout the nation and abroad reviving church congregations, both large and small with her “God-gilded voice sent dancing, swaying, sashaying into our lives, she was song. She was the joyous Franciscan always.” Sister Thea called on Catholics to celebrate their differences and to retain their cultures, but to reflect their joy at being one in Christ. “You walk TOGETHER and you won’t get weary. You might get tired, but you won’t get weary,” are the memorable words of Sister Thea.

Sister Thea died in Canton on March 30, 1990. Immediately before her death, she was invited to speak to the Catholic Bishops of the United States. The bishops were greatly moved by her talk and at the end they stood arm-in-arm and sang the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” led by Sister Thea. She often said, “If anybody asks you who I am, just tell them I’m a child of God.”

Click here to watch her speech before the Catholic Bishops.